Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Time to Say No to the Torah: Pinchas, Reading III

Last week I said that I think there are four ways of dealing with difficult passages in the Torah. I've just discussed how to use two of them (asking a different question, and interpretation) to understand the difficult story of Pinchas. Here's the third approach out of four:

Rejection: ... a story like this cannot possibly have anything to teach us. It reflects the barbaric beliefs of our distant ancestors. We should try to separate the uplifting teachings of the Torah from the culture in which they first appeared.
In general, this approach is my last resort. But there is one part of the Pinchas story I don't want to reframe or reinterpret.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Assail the Midanites and defeat them--for they assailed you by the trickery the practiced against you--because of the affair of Peor and because of the affair of their kinswoman Cozbi, daughter of the Midianite chieftain, who was killed at the time of the plague on account of Peor."
I am sure there are ways of reading this passage to make it seem less objectionable. Some day, I may look in the midrash on the book of Numbers to find out how the rabbis of the Talmudic period read it. Today's need, however, is to reject certain attitudes without any reservation.

I reject group retaliation. If certain Midianites tried to practice cultural imperialism on the Israelites and assimilate them into their idol-worshipping society, that is no reason to wipe out the whole group. Then as now, collective responsibility is an abhorrent principle.

I reject the false equivalence of "trickery" and warfare.

I reject the widespread portrayal in the Torah of non-Jewish women as sinister and seductive. It is the flip side of the non-portrayal, the near-absence, of well-rounded Jewish women in the Torah narrative. I recognize here the Jewish parallel to the dichotomy Catholics often talk about between virgins and whores in their tradition. This stereotype is terrible for Jewish women as much as it is for shiksahs. It pits the two groups against each other, and it prevents them from claiming the right to be full, ambiguous, complicated human beings. It also absolves Jewish men of any responsibility for the choices they make in their sexual relationships.

Some day, when we have put ethnic warfare and sexism behind us, it may be time to look deeper into this text--but not yet. Today, our job is to say NO.

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